What’s the Worst that Would Happen …?

[Note: I published this long ago, in the early days of this blog. Recently I read a post by Kathy Loomis on fear and art, wondering if we focus on the fear too much, teaching fear rather than boldness. That may be so. But the most important thing to learn about fear in art and in most making is, there is really nothing to be afraid of. In that context, I post this again.]

A friend recently posted on Facebook, “Usually I’m a pretty good cook… today was not one of those days. Man did I mess breakfast up. Oh well, the dogs liked it.”

I said, “If you ask yourself ‘what’s the worst that would happen if…’ and the answer is that the dogs will get to eat it, you might as well try it!”

There’s a lot of stuff I don’t try in my quilting. Sometimes I actually don’t have interest in a technique or style. Sometimes I do but feel a little (or a lot) intimidated. While I definitely have favorite styles and colors, I want to push my creativity by being open to failure. I want to, but honestly sometimes I have trouble doing so.

There are many sports metaphors about risk and winning – Wayne Gretzky’s famous quote is “You’ll always miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” However, we don’t always apply the same thinking to our art. In reading about creativity, I understand that we don’t take risks because we fear failure. Really, failure or success is determined by setting some standard to reach, and then measuring whether or not we reached it. The worst part is, we set our own standards in quilting, and usually we set them too high. We hesitate to try new things because we fear we won’t do them as well as our heroes, or as well as the best thing we ourselves ever did, or because we are worried about others’ opinions.

Another facet of “failure” for me is I am a finisher. If I try something, I want the results to be “good enough” to finish the project. (Others might have an odd fear of success with the same result — those who don’t finish projects may not wish the obligation that comes with a successful experiment!)

Could we measure success as having been bold enough to try something new, and having learned something from it? Then every project we undertake could be a success. And every experiment would be its own finish, with or without a completed project.

Another friend, an actor, talked to me recently about stage fright. A particularly bad commercial shoot several years ago led to lingering anxiety about how each “next shoot” would go. But the stage fright makes him angry and he refuses to succumb to it, becoming stronger all the time in overcoming it. He says, “Perhaps we are too ‘full of ourselves’ and think that we should be ‘perfect’…and when we are not, we just can’t handle the thought….”

Stage fright, writer’s block, quilting fear, all part of the same structure. There is fear to try, to be judged a failure, if only by ourselves.

In Anne Lamott’s book Bird by Bird, she talks about the process of creation. As a writer, she’s well aware of the desire to create perfection each time we begin a new project.

Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft. I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won’t have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren’t even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they’re doing it.

Or more bluntly from her, “In fact, the only way I can get anything written at all is to write really, really shitty first drafts.”

Shitty first drafts, practice blocks, even finished quilts we assess as failures, are the predecessors of better work. Go ahead and write that shitty first draft. Only when we begin something can we learn from it, improve on it, and be done with it, one way or another.

Elizabeth Gilbert, the author of bestselling Eat, Pray, Love, gave a TED talk about the elusive nature of creative genius. Genius, inspiration, the “muse,” when they show up at all, sometimes show up at inopportune times. Whether or not genius shows up, she says, keep at it, keep showing up. Do your job, whether or not genius does.

At the end of the talk she reiterates, “Don’t be afraid, don’t be daunted. Just do your job.

Sometimes it feels like we’re doing our job with little guidance, no clear path.

Anne Lamott again:

“E.L. Doctorow said once said that ‘Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.’ You don’t have to see where you’re going, you don’t have to see your destination or everything you will pass along the way. You just have to see two or three feet ahead of you. This is right up there with the best advice on writing, or life, I have ever heard.”

It’s okay to not know where you’re going, or how it will turn out. Don’t let fear stop you. Don’t be afraid. If the worst that would happen is the dogs eat the breakfast, the first draft is shitty, or the block goes into a pile of orphans, try it anyway.

What’s the worst that would happen?


35 thoughts on “What’s the Worst that Would Happen …?

  1. KerryCan

    This is the second post in two days I’ve read about fear and crafting–it must be on people’s minds! If I feel fear of making things, it seems to come from not wanting to waste material. But my quilt guild has a flourishing community-service mission and they will find ways to incorporate my orphan blocks or anything I deem unsuccessful into a project that will benefit someone else. And, since I weave a lot of towels, any so-called failures end up in my own kitchen, actually being used. Having something positive to do with unsuccessful projects is totally liberating.

    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      Waste might be a big thing for a lot of people. And as pointed out above, it’s not like a draft of written work — discouraging for time and effort, but there isn’t a lot of tangible waste. But as you say, there are a lot of ways to use those orphan blocks or unlovely towels or misshapen chocolates… 😉 My personal fear factor is pretty low these days. Mostly I republished this (written when I was a lot more afraid of a lot of things) because I’ve been digging through my archives, reorganizing some, and found it — thought it was worth posting again. Thanks, Kerry.

  2. claire quilty

    Your blog is number one in my book. Daily I look forward to your blog because there is always something to give me a boost to keep trying. This one has hit me between the eyes as I recognize that I get hung up on trying to make something perfect on first try. Now I see perfection is blocking me from growth and fun. Motto for tomorrow’s experiment: If it doesn’t work, throw it out, quickly move on, and know beyond a doubt I’ve learned another lesson. A really biggie is: It is ok to throw out mistakes that are totally unusable.

    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      Quickly move on, yes. That doesn’t always mean quick new action. It just means quickly accept that what you tried doesn’t work in this instance. Once you accept that, it opens the door for thinking about what would work instead. I don’t like to waste time or effort or fabric any more than anyone else, but that’s part of the point — it wasn’t a waste if you learned something valuable. it’s just fabric! Thanks much.

  3. dezertsuz

    Interesting, because the mantra of my life has been, “What’s the worst that could happen?” Doesn’t mean I have this mastered, though! Or anything else, as my mistakes prove. =)

  4. knitnkwilt

    I’m glad you reposted this since I wasn’t following the first time.
    While I love the analogy of the shitty first draft (that can be revised), there is a big difference between revising writing and remaking a quilt with new fabric, etc.That said, I still think it important to do. Two thoughts. The design that doesn’t quite make it in my eye may still please someone else, and will definitely keep someone warm (assuming usable size). And just as writing opens windows on better ideas and ways to say same ideas, making a quilt opens up better ways to do the same thing. Hence, working in a series as one tries to answer the challenge.

    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      Great points. Even when I can draw another draft in EQ7, that doesn’t mean I can use it once it’s done. That recent Leftovers quilt is all made from a shitty first draft AFTER I drew them and they looked great electronically. I have found working in series makes a huge difference. I know a lot of people would have gotten very bored with my series by now. But I find that with each medallion I make I learn something new about them. I study them, analyze them, and even when I love them I can see all the things I’d do differently. And then I try to… 🙂

      1. knitnkwilt

        And seeing what could be done differently isn’t being hard on ones’self, only identifying the next step.

        I hadn’t thought of EQ drafting–that IS more like a writing draft. I was thinking of the “draft” made up in fabric.

  5. Jim Ruebush

    I’m glad you reposted this one. It makes me think of little kids and how they just go forward, trying new things, not judging if it will be successful. They are motivated by the desire to see what happens. Those kids learn over time to be more and more self-monitoring for possible ‘failure’ as some would call it. They lose their desire to just go ahead and have fun with an idea.

    The adults I most enjoy being around are those who have retained a lot of the little kid qualities. They are still motivated by the fun things that might happen. They don’t need guarantees of success at the end. Their success is in the trying.

  6. katechiconi

    I have that TED lecture pinned on one of my PInterest boards to encourage myself when I’m feeling iffy about trying something. And I live by ‘finished is better than perfect’. The journey never stops, but the view does become more interesting when you recognise what’s flying past the windows… You can choose to stop and look more closely, or decide to push on and see what else is new out there. Some of it will be ‘meh’ and some will be ‘OMG, why have I never seen this before’. As Pink says: “Gotta get up and try, try, try”.

  7. allisonreidnem

    I was thinking a similar way to Jim as I was reading your re-post. I definitely fear failure and react negatively to things going ‘wrong’. My teacher friends talk a lot about developing ‘resilience’ in their young pupils (4-7 yr olds) so they can learn effectively by experimenting and finding out for themselves what does and doesn’t work without getting discouraged. Something I need to work on at 53 years of age!

      1. allisonreidnem

        I don’t know the answer to developing curiosity but I guess giving children (and adults) a good variety of experiences and the skills to research a question are important.

    1. jmn111

      If your husband’s position were true there’d never be advances in science or medicine – because a huge percentage of the time experimental outcomes are unexpected and most important lead to new unanticipated questions. At the heart of any scientific effort is let’s just see…

  8. jimfetig

    A lot to chew on. Our education system, employee eval systems and even social media discourage failure. It’s all rewards or punishment for the wrong actions. To fail and learn from it is better than never having tried. At least that’s what my string of failures suggests.


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